Once, on a mad-dash through London's Euston Station, I slammed full-tilt into a gentleman wearing a tweed suit and drinking coffee. He had grey hair and was probably in his late-50’s. He didn’t fall because as he stumbled toward the platform floor, I grabbed his arm to keep him upright. Coffee sloshed as his face entered my visual field, and it was one of sheer terror. He must have assumed he was being randomly assaulted right there in the tube station.
As long as I live, I shall never forget the look of sheer terror on that man’s face.
“Oh my god I’m so sorry!”
I had spilt coffee all over his suit sleeve, and it seared the flesh on my arm where it had also splashed.
“Oh my goodness let me help you clean this up.” My heart sped, my face ruddy.
He speechlessly mouthed a declination.
“I’m so, so sorry,” but out of sheer humiliation I shuffled off to the far end of the platform to hide in shame. I never want to put another human being into that frightening position again. Besides, he could have been a 280-lb rugger or the starting wicket-keeper for Middlesex CCC. I'd have gotten the stuffing socked out of me right there at Euston, for sure. Talk about bangers and mash.
Far worse, what if the man had been a small child? Children are littler and more apt to injury than adults. They're also precious and innocent and wonderful. During the same European trip, Abe, Wolf and I went to Barcelona. Below the towering spirals of Gaudi’s Catedral La Sagrada Familia, we crossed the busy avenue as I plowed over a small boy of four or five, walking hand in hand with his father. The kid fell flat on his backside, and I was mortified. This father was more forgiving than I deserved. He pulled the boy up by his arm and laughed in Spanish what sounded something to effect of "no worries, it's his fault for not paying attention." The boy's eyes were saucer-sized, but he was uninjured.
“Pardon! Pardon, nino!” I pleaded, hands clasping my head, eyes darting between the boy and his father. The man smiled, patted me on the shoulder, and off he and his stunned son went into the Spanish afternoon.
All had ended well, and Abe and Wolf thought the collision was somewhat funny, but they appreciated the lesson, as did I.
“Guys, I could've really hurt that kid.”
"I can't believe I did that."
But my memory isn't what it ought to be, and I repeat mistakes with alarming frequency. Some years later, one Memorial Day night, Brisson and I left a bar-b-que at Shane StClaire’s house. As we left, I was feeling pretty drunk and extremely fast, so I chose to sprint down the little suburban street into the late-night dim, head back and arms churning like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire, blissfully unaware of the Asian family peacefully crossing the street ahead. By the time I was in their midst--unaware I was in anyone’s midst--I swung my fist in the air in triumph, yelling “I won!” into the father's ear some six inches away. Brisson, who never would have beaten me even if it had been a race (at the moment he could only lunge and flop in heaving, hysterics) doubled-over, gasping in an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughter.
“There’s Koreans!” wheezing as the family fled in abject panic.
“Oh shit, there are,” as my feeble peepers picked out vague silhouettes scurrying off in terror.
My eyes bolted wide. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I didn’t…oh no…I’m really sorry!” But they were too afraid to pay any heed, and I was too embarrassed to press the point, let alone to try to explain that on the one hand I'm visually impaired, while on the other hand I'd thought it prudent to sprint chin-first down the twilit street.
I could very easily have plowed through one of the children, or the man, or the man’s wife, never having known they were there, and I might have deafened the man after screaming in his ear.
I don’t sprint down dimly lit streets anymore.
Fact is, I run into people a lot, especially when not using my cane, which, in my hometown at least, is more often than not. If ever a love-hate relationship has existed with an inanimate object, this is it. I use it as seldom as possible, but what constitutes "possible" is changing as the years progress. Sometimes I simply don’t need it, like when I’m playing football in the park. Jason and I spend hours on Anchorage's Delany Park Strip downtown, tossing the pigskin like the glorious athletes we are. No, I'm not a Manning, but for the most part I can throw frozen ropes to the speedy Jason, and I’ve got soft hands (though they're hardening with age) and most times I can track the flight of the ball through the RP tunnel and haul that sucker in. If I drop a pass, finding the ball on the ground becomes immediately more challenging--much moreso than watching it fly off Jason’s hand against a blue or white sky. This must puzzle onlookers.
"That bald guy...two minutes ago he made a basket catch on a dead sprint, and now he doesn't seem to be able to find the ball at his feet. What the hell, Mildred?"
There I am, circling and stalking the ball like a drunk tiger.
“Five feet to eleven o’clock! Eleven o'clock! That's one o'clock. Can you tell time?” Jason’s patience runs thin as I scan the grass in vain. “Directly to your left…ONE FOOT TO YOUR LEFT! Okay you just walked past it...”
On one sunny summer evening of catch, I made an unexpected dogleg too late in my pattern, and Jason overshot me. Again I turned unpredictably, this time careening into a baby stroller. I flew heals-over-head through the stroller, landing on my back on the grass, gazing dazed into the summer blue. Pity the stroller wasn’t empty. The baby in it was pissed, but not as pissed as his father who’d been pushing the stroller.
I had ruined their stroll.
Fortunately, my friend Mark was strolling with father and son, and just as the father lunged half to tend to his kid and half to kick the crap out of me (somehow not knowing which would occur first) Mark gasped, "Dave?" The father quickly ensured the baby was okay, and spun at me. Mark jumped in “No! He’s blind! He’s blind!”
“Then how the hell is he playing football?!”
"Because--" Mark paused at a loss. “Eh…”
Jason, resembling Brisson's reaction after the close call with theAsian family, was of little help. Mark, with his hand on the man's chest, and I, hands clasped before mine, conveyed to the father that I am "sort of blind," while he stood teetering on the edge of listening and punching me in the nose. He didn't, reason prevailed with a “No harm done” and a “Be more damn careful,” and Mark, the man, and his son strolled off down the park strip.
After the initial hilarity had subsided for him, Jason rubbed tears from his eyes as he shook his head. "Dude, you have got to me more aware of what's going on around you."
Another time, while walking through a mall with Eve, I barreled through another stroller with an even younger baby in it. The mother shrieked in ululations tantamount to an eagle whose nest is being robbed, while her partner stood agape, evidently bewildered by why anyone would smash into a baby stroller. Eve quickly dragged me off by the arm as I blurted fragments of well-rehearsed apologetics. We were off before either parent could retaliate or notify mall security.
The Barcelona boy, the Asian kids, and the strollers at the park and at the mall: I really could have injured those children. As much as I harbor ambivalence with respect to my cane, I have begun to use it more frequently since it’s bad enough plowing into adults and trees, but little ones? Yikes. Nevertheless, the cane isn't a catchall; it doesn’t gain the attention of youngsters with any consistent reliability. Maybe if the tip was on fire, or if I was on fire, or if the dragon I was walking was breathing fire, then I might wrest the attention away from their toddling reveries. I do gain the attention of their parents, however, and through the tunnel I often see mom or dad corral wee ones close to their thighs until the unpredictable blind man has passed safely by. For this reason, I use the cane 100% of the time when I'm in large cities. There is a very finite amount of information allowable in my visual field, and I can’t risk trouncing another kid.
I've been lucky so far, or rather, the children of Earth have been lucky so far. More than anything, I don't want to trod upon some poor little innocent, head in the clouds, utterly indifferent to her surroundings. She has better things occupying her burgeoning imagination. It’s the parents' responsibility to mind the child, but if I can make the job easier by not place-kicking their beloved offspring into oncoming traffic, why shouldn’t I? Kids truly are oblivious. They never seem to have the foggiest clue where they're going. They live in the eternal present.
I can remember what being a kid is like, considering erratically my whereabouts and what's forthcoming. One of my earliest memories takes place in a furniture store with my parents who were shopping for, well, furniture. I was probably five or six, and bored as could be. I followed my family and the salesman, looking around here and there, paying no particular attention to where I was going, when the adults abruptly stopped walking and I slammed my nose directly into the salesman’s butt. Luckily, he was wearing pants, as my parents usually didn’t frequent nudist furniture stores. All the same, I bounced off the man’s ass and fell flatly onto mine.
The rest of my life has been a variation on that theme: smacking my face into the world’s butt. I'm taller now, and heavier than when I was six, and I can inflict even more damage, especially on little ones. I don't know what I will do if owing to vanity and foolish pride I was ever to blindly harm a child. I would never forgive myself, and would never deserve forgiveness. I can rely on them 0%, which if my math is correct leaves the vast majority of the responsibility squarely on my shoulders. I assume my luck's run out. I need to use the stick more. Failing that, and until then, I'll squint my eyes, perk up my ears, and listen for gibberish. Strollers remain a my nemeses.